NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – John McCabe-Juhnke, professor of communication arts at Bethel College, believes in the importance of empathy.
So much so, he decided to take a whole school year’s worth of time (nine-and-a-half months) to test and refine his own capacity for empathy. McCabe-Juhnke recently returned from a Fulbright Scholar year at Lesya Ukrainka East European National University (EENU) in Lutsk, Ukraine.
“I believe empathy – the ability to understand and share others’ feelings – is fundamental to humanity’s survival,” McCabe-Juhnke says. “Empathy helps us overcome barriers – political, religious, cultural – that keep us isolated and afraid. It’s central to Paul’s vision in Ephesians of strangers and aliens reconciled in a unified ‘household of God.’”
“In my theater classes, I talk a lot about empathy, understanding the other, working toward that person you’re trying to portray,” he continues. “I knew it would be a challenge for my own empathic understanding to get past the barriers of living in another culture.”
“It’s difficult, even when you do share the language. I didn’t speak much Ukrainian, and then often we understood English words in different ways.”
McCabe-Juhnke chose Ukraine because “I was keen to visit the land of my German Mennonite foremothers and -fathers, who emigrated in the 1870s from what is now north-central Ukraine.”
“I didn’t know when I applied for the Fulbright Scholarship, back two years ago, that Russian President Vladimir Putin would interfere with my original placement at the Crimean University of Arts and Culture. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was one barrier I was helpless to overcome.”
The alternative placement at EENU seemed “less than ideal at first,” McCabe-Juhnke says. “I would not be teaching performance to English-speaking students, but instead teach courses in psycholinguistics to Ukrainian-speaking students. My classes would be translated.
“When my plan to teach a Theater Art class was derailed, I ended up offering an American Theater Club for English-speaking students instead, which turned out to be a far better alternative.”
The theater club gave McCabe-Juhnke “the chance to do one small piece of what I had wanted, to work with Ukrainian students on American texts.”
However, the experience also had its frustrations. Students would float in and out. A club made no academic requirement for students to stick with it and Ukrainian university students are “incredibly busy,” McCabe-Juhnke says.
He ended up with four committed students and directed a production of John Cheever’s The Enormous Radio. “I had to play a role,” he says, “and it’s terribly hard to direct when you’re in [the play], but in the end, I think it was good modeling for the students.”
When it came time for the June 5 performance on the EENU campus, McCabe-Juhnke consulted with Larysa Zasiekina, his local host and chair of the psychology department, about whether to sell tickets.
This came in the midst of McCabe-Juhnke’s own pondering of his time in Ukraine that was quickly drawing to a close.
“I knew all year long I was living in this poor country that was under attack, that couldn’t afford a war, whose economy was in shambles. I had been feeling frustrated because it seemed so hopeless to me. It’s amazing that anybody there is hopeful, but they are. Larysa had said at some point, ‘The important thing is just to do something.’”
So when the discussion of play tickets came up, McCabe-Juhnke had the idea to ask audience members to give a donation of five hryvnias to buy books for children of soldiers who had been injured or killed fighting in Eastern Ukraine.
“At first Larysa said, ‘I don’t know how it would work,’ but when it was done, she said, ‘This was a very good idea.’”
“I’ve been fortunate never to have lived in a country fighting a war on its own soil, until this year,” McCabe-Juhnke says. “I’ve learned to love Ukraine and felt for some time I’d like to do something to help alleviate the suffering this war has caused. This was a small way for me to do my part.”
On his last day in Lutsk before beginning the travels that would take him home, McCabe-Juhnke, Zasiekina and another colleague, Oksana Solovei, went to the bookstore, bought the books – which were designed to help Ukrainian children learn English – and delivered them. Solovei works with the Volyn Regional ATO Combat Coordinating Aid Center that provides support for soldiers’ families.
When he presented the books to the women volunteers at the center, McCabe-Juhnke told them, “No soldier should have to die. No child should lose a parent. But maybe books like these can help us learn to understand one another better, to avoid wars like these in the future.”
“At that point, I felt like I’d raised some awareness,” McCabe-Juhnke says. “Part of the reason we do Fulbrights is the hope that when Americans are in other cultures, people there see Americans who are generous, giving and care about others, not only themselves.”
“Although my sabbatical sojourn has ended, my journey of discovery continues,” McCabe-Juhnke says.
He recalls how easily he was able to travel while living in Ukraine – to Poland to give some lectures, to Spain with his wife, Karen, who joined him for three months, and with their children over the Christmas holidays, while his middle-class university peers in Ukraine had no such freedom, financially or politically.
“I’m coming to terms with my own privilege, and see the value of living with less even when I have access to more. I have a new perspective on national pride, especially in a time of war.”
“We all live in language – which I talk about in performance classes – but you don’t realize how it directs your perspective until you get to a place where there’s a different language and understand the perspectives are very different.”
“I anticipate that now when I teach concepts such as culture shock, assimilation, resistance, I have some real-world experience to go with them. I understood them intellectually, but until you live them, you don’t really have the fullest understanding of those terms.”
“One thing I’ve noticed since coming back, I’m a lot more confident with my own difference, my own alien status. I’m hoping that I learned that it’s OK to be me and to say what I think as long as I do that in a way that engages conversation as opposed to shutting people down. If I want other people to own their ideas, I need to own mine.”
“Christ entered the world as a resident alien – a sojourner in the human community,” McCabe-Juhnke says. “As I walked closely beside my Ukrainian sisters and brothers, explored their communities, visited their homes, heard their stories, I got just a small glimpse what it could mean to be ‘citizens with the saints,’ all of us welcome in the household of God.”